Out of all the trips we have planned up to this point, I was most excited about London. Who doesn’t dream about going to Paris and London to soak in the culture, history, and atmosphere? Well, Paris has been everything I thought it would be, while London…well. London was different. I’m not saying that it was bad, really, just that it was nothing like I thought it would be. I suppose I had this image in my head that did not match reality. It happens. However, after coming back to Paris, we realized that maybe we did London the wrong way and saw the wrong things. My french tutor lived in London for around 13 years to learn english and advised me, post trip, that we should have done things a little differently. Hindsight, hmm?
We arrived in London at St. Pancras station in King’s Cross around 2pm local time. The train station itself was quite nice and filled with boutiques, food, and light. People were bustling around with their luggage and grabbing snacks from the numerous fooderies. We immediately noticed that the English even walk on the opposite side in buildings. We had to keep telling ourselves to keep to the left as we pushed through so we would not be trampled. As we made our way out of the station and onto the street, we quickly realized that this was not Paris. The air felt heavy with car exhaust and large red busses came careening past us at high speeds, uncomfortably close to the small curbs. It was chillier than we expected thanks to the natural dampness in the air from the Thames and very overcast. Patiently, we waited at a crosswalk with a mob of people and carefully crossed the streets only when the sign said to. Darting across streets in Paris is a normal occurrence for us, but here we didn’t dare. Too many cars were in the strangely laid out streets and even paintings on the ground warned us to “look right” or ” look left” to prevent you from walking out into oncoming traffic. The crosswalk lights were annoyingly out of sync, forcing us to cross, wait, and cross again. The streets seemed grimy and had larger amount of randomly scattered trash than what we were used to. They were lined with a variety of foreign food restaurants, London souvenir junk shops, and even a horserace betting/casino type place. The road that housed our teeny hotel was also home to a hostel, notably named ‘The Clink’, a pub/music venue named ‘The Water Rat’, and a Subway. It was made painfully obvious that we were not in the 7th of Paris anymore.
Checking into the Hotel was easy, but amusing. We noticed that they charged for EVERYTHING from the hairdryer to using the TV. They even charged you for towels and toiletries if you wanted replacements. Luckily, Expedia booked the room with all the trimmings (note sarcasm). It was clean, the lobby, and had a small coffee bar and maps of the city available to it’s guests. It didn’t feel as foreign and uncomfortable as the walk from the station, so we relaxed when we realized it was not a bad place to stay. Our room was on the second floor and and down, what felt like, a maze of hallways. Opening the door and stepping in, we immediately noticed how ridiculously tiny the room was. Don’t get me wrong, it was everything you needed and clean, but it was so small that elbows regularly hit walls when getting on and off the bed. The bathroom was small, but fine, and there was a wooden coatrack-like-contraption to be used as a closet. It was enough space for a short stay, and the price was the most reasonable we had found. London is not known for being a cheap place, so we saved money whenever we could. Thankfully, the cheap hotel was not horrifying.
There was a small plan in place for your first day there. After unpacking our stuff, or rather what we could, we relaxed in the room for a short period of time to stretch after the two hour train ride. We turned on the TV to explore the wonders of television in english and soon discovered that british tv is a little mind numbing, but more on the tv shows later. While waiting for our phone company, Orange, to send us a text offering us phone data for a few days at a reasonable price, we used the WiFi from the hotel to find our way to the Burberry Outlet. “Laine”, the french tutor previously mentioned, had told me about the outlet when I explained Geep’s love of their gorgeous trenchcoats, but dislike of the prices. She said that the outlet was often 60-80% off normal prices and was completely worth trekking out to. The directions seemed easy enough and we are completely used to using metro systems now, so we figured it would be a snap. Gathering our things, we zipped up our coats and headed out the door in search of Burberry-goodness.
We were mistaken. ‘This will be easy!’ was a mistake. Quickly, we learned a few things about the London Underground. One, it was EXPENSIVE, two, it made no fuckin’ sense. We had purchased oyster cards from the machines because buying the day passes seemed confusing. It wasn’t as simple as buying one for a day, there were stipulations, and rules, and etc. So, an oyster card seemed the easiest to just charge and use. Cards acquired, we found our way down to the Victoria line as instructed by google maps. Now, in Paris, the trains will tell you which direction they are heading by listing their final destination. Example: Line 8 heads to either Balard or Cretiel. Easy, right? The only time the final destination changes is if the train line splits, but it tells you which one it is heading towards. The London trains did not use the same logic. Granted, it seemed like ALL of the train lines split, but they didn’t tell you which one they were heading to as a final destination. It would name some random stop on the way to that destination and you had to guess if that was the correct train for you. We didn’t know if the train was correct sometimes until we got on the train and checked the light-up signage inside. We ended up on the wrong train a few times during this trip. Bottom line, the Metro was miserable and hard to understand. I feel bad for anyone that doesn’t speak english trying to maneuver through the system.
Somehow, we managed to find the correct train, to the correct station, to get another train, to get to Burberry. Ah-Maz-Ing. Still internetless, we had to rely on written directions to locate the place. Those written directions turned out to have, I guess what you would call, ‘superfluous information’. There were streets that not exist and turns that did not need to be taken. Using our mad directional skills, we found the street we were supposed to go down and found the street where Burberry was. It was an interesting walk, too. We were in an ‘up-and-coming’ area were there was a mix of government housing and expensive shops. People in London are a strange mix of slightly European and American. They were dressed rather shlubbily and were more heavy-set than in France. We were quickly forming the opinion that England is a halfway point between France and the US, but leans a little more to the American side. Fast food cups, hoodies, and shorts with socks were a common sight wherever you looked. You couldn’t blame the badness on them being tourists, because they had the british tongue. I know that I am not a slim, lithe, little thing, but I have learned to dress well in France. I am not being snobby, it is just that you can see the difference between life in most of Europe and the States when you have been a way for a while. Seeing some of what used to be common in H-town, now seems glaringly obvious and odd.
Anyways, we made it to Burberry successfully. The store was clean and open. People were everywhere, digging through unfolded scarves and shoes on display. On the way through the store, we stopped and checked a few prices on things to get an idea of the deal available. Not too shabby, a bag for around 50% off and a wallet for about 40% less, but we are talking about stuff that is in the triple digits to begin with, and I am not talking about the one-hundreds. After locating the Trenchcoats on the Men’s side, we began digging through the racks looking for the coat he had liked. It was a longer, black, trench coat with the Burberry plaid on the underside of the collar, buckles, and other small intricate details. We succeeded in finding one, even in his size, but the discount was not jump-around-worthy. Given that the british pound was sitting at almost double the US dollar at the time, the coat was about $680. That is about $200-300 off. Yes, yes, it was a good chunk off, but we were hoping for the 50% and up range. Defeated, or rather disappointed, we wandered through the rest of the store gawking at the prices of their umbrellas and gloves before heading back out to fight the trains again. Worthless.
After managing to find our way back to St. Pancras, we had spotted a cupcake cart inside the station and decided that we would get some after procuring dinner. France does do food right, but American cake is different from France cake, much to Geep’s chagrin. Since the cupcake phenomenon actually began in London, we had assumed that their cupcakes were probably more like what we bought from Oh-La-La’s back home. We wandered around until we found a restaurant called Fineburger. They had a chicken burger on the menu and had something Paris does not, tables spaced apart. We ordered our holy-crap-expensive burgers and chips and sat down in the awesomely oversized booth to wait for our food. Exhausted, we sat in silence with our drinks waiting for the buzzer to tell us to pick up our order. It did not take long, and soon Geep was back with two baskets filled with tasty looking sandwiches. It was not long before we were shoveling food into our faces and slopping malt vinegar onto our fries. Something was weird, though. As we sat there eating, we looked at each other with confused faces the more we ate. It didn’t taste like ANYTHING. Like, NOTHING. We felt the food being crushed between our teeth and masses sliding down our throats, but did not taste a single thing. There was mayo on the chicken, crispy lettuce, and a tomato, but nothing. It was the strangest thing I had ever experienced. How can you not even taste chicken? How do you taste nothing when your fries are dripping in vinegar? Were they chips made with magic potatoes, capable of black-holing any amount of flavor into a nether world? We continued to eat to stop the grumblings in our stomachs and quickly hoped off to the cupcake cart in hopes of something delicious. Being that it was the end of the day, there were very few options left. Two vanilla cupcakes decorated with fondant London Underground logos seemed charming enough, so we bought them. While he was paying the woman, I tried a small sample bite from a tray of their carrot cake and was pleased to discover that it was tasty. I had high hopes for the vanilla ones we had picked as we wandered back to our closest/hotel room.
Pants were quickly provided as an offering to the floor as we entered and searched for our pajamas. We clicked on the Tv and looked for something to amuse us while we dove into our cakes, but were slightly dumbfounded by our options. There were extra-cheesy dramatic soap operas, badly planned out game shows, a plethora of english gardening shows, and british versions of MTV. It was terrible and disappointing. We are not much for TV, but it has been months since we watched any that we could understand, so we were hoping for a little entertainment. Even the commercials were bizarre and failed miserably to be cheeky. We ended up watching a show about a man who bought an English castle well on its way to being ruins. He was jumping through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to redo the place and turn it into a country home. The place was gorgeous when it was complete, but the man admitted that he had spent way more than he wanted to. Geep and I wondered if they had to live on crackers and cheese for a while to live in the place, but it was stunning and the view from the top was breathtaking. We were actually enjoying the show, so we decided to eat our cupcakes. Like british TV, we soon discovered that they were doughy, over sugared, and bland. C’est la Angleterre?